This guest post by KRISHNA JHA and DHIRENDRA K JHA is an excerpt from their book, Ayodhya: The Dark Night, about the original Ayodhya conspiracy of 22 December 1949
The sound of a thud reverberated through the medieval precincts of the Babri Masjid like that of a powerful drum and jolted Muhammad Ismael, the muezzin, out of his deep slumber. He sat up, confused and scared, since the course of events outside the mosque for the last couple of weeks had not been very reassuring. For a few moments, the muezzin waited, standing still in a dark corner of the mosque, studying the shadows the way a child stares at the box-front illustration of a jigsaw puzzle before trying to join the pieces together.
Never before had he seen such a dark cloud hovering over the mosque. He had not felt as frightened even in 1934, when the masjid was attacked and its domes damaged severely, one of them even developing a large hole. The mosque had then been rebuilt and renovated by the government. That time, it had been a mad crowd, enraged by rumours of the slaughter of a cow in the village of Shahjahanpur near Ayodhya on the occasion of Bakr-Id. This time, though the intruders were not as large in number, they looked much more ominous than the crowd fifteen years ago.
As the trespassers walked towards the mosque, the muezzin – short, stout and dark-complexioned, wearing his usual long kurta and a lungi – jumped out of the darkness. Before the adversaries could discover his presence, he dashed straight towards Abhiram Das, the vairagi who was holding the idol in his hands and leading the group of intruders. He grabbed Abhiram Das from behind and almost snatched the idol from him. But the sadhu quickly freed himself and, together with his friends, retaliated fiercely. Heavy blows began raining from all directions. Soon, the muezzin realized that he was no match for the men and that he alone would not be able to stop them.
Muhammad Ismael then faded back into the darkness as unobtrusively as he had entered. Quietly, he managed to reach the outer courtyard and began running. He ran out of the mosque and kept running without thinking where he was going. Though he stumbled and hurt himself even more, the muezzin was unable to feel the pain that was seeping in through the bruises. Soon, he was soaked in blood that dripped at every move he made. He was too stunned to think of anything but the past, and simply did not know what to do, how to save the masjid, where to run. There was a time when he used to think that the vairagis who had tried to capture the graveyard and who had participated in the navah paath and kirtan thereafter had based their vision on a tragic misreading of history, and that good sense would prevail once the distrust between Hindus and Muslims – which had been heightened during Partition – got healed. That was what he thought during the entire build-up outside the Babri Masjid ever since the beginning of the navah paath on 22 November, and that was why he never really believed the rumour that the real purpose of the entire show in and around the Ramachabutara was to capture the mosque.
Muhammad Ismael had always had cordial relations with the priests of the Ramachabutara. The animosity that history had bequeathed them had never come in the way of their day-to-day interactions and the mutual help they extended to each other. Bhaskar Das – who was a junior priest of the small temple at the Ramachabutara in those days and who later became the mahant of the Nirmohi Akhara – also confirmed this.
Before 22 December 1949, my guru Mahant Baldev Das had assigned my duty at the chabutara. I used to keep my essential clothes and utensils with me there. In the night and during afternoon, I used to sleep inside the Babri Masjid. The muezzin had asked me to remove my belongings during the time of namaz, and the rest of the time the mosque used to be our home.
While the chabutara used to get offerings, enough for the sustenance of the priest there, the muezzin usually always faced a crisis as the contribution from his community for his upkeep was highly irregular. Often, vairagis, particularly the priest at the chabutara, would feed the muezzin. It was like a single community living inside a religious complex. Communalists on both sides differentiated between the two, but, for the muezzin they were all one.
But it was not so once the vairagis entered the mosque that night. The trust that he had placed in them, he now tended to think, had never been anything but his foolish assumption. It had never been there at all. In a moment, the smokescreen of the benevolence of the vairagis had vanished. The muezzin seemed to have experienced an awakening in the middle of that cold night. His new, revised way of thinking told him that the men who had entered the Babri Masjid in the cover of darkness holding the idol of Rama Lalla had no mistaken vision of history. Indeed, these men had no vision of any kind; what they had done was a crime of the first order, and what they were trying to accomplish was simply disastrous.
Despite his waning strength, Muhammad Ismael trudged along for over two hours and stopped only at Paharganj Ghosiana, a village of Ghosi Muslims – a Muslim sub-caste of traditional cattle-rearers – in the outskirts of Faizabad. The residents of this village, in fact, were the first to awaken to the fact that the Babri Masjid had been breached when a frantic ‘Ismael Saheb’ came knocking on their doors at around 2 a.m. on 23 December 1949. Abdur Rahim, a regular at the mosque before it was defiled, had this to say:
They might have killed Ismael saheb. But he somehow managed to flee from the Babri Masjid. He reached our village around 2 a.m. He was badly injured and completely shaken by the developments. Some villagers got up, gave him food and warm clothes. Later, he began working as a muezzin in the village mosque, and sincerely performed his role of cleaning the mosque and sounding azan for prayer five times a day until his death in the early 1980s.
In Paharganj Ghosiana, Muhammad Ismael lived like a hermit. He could neither forget the horror of that night, nor overcome the shock that broke his heart. He was among the few witnesses to one of the most crucial moments in independent India’s history, and the first victim to resist the act. Spending the rest of his life in anonymity, he appeared immersed deep in his own thoughts, mumbling, though rarely, mostly about ‘those days’. Life for the trusting muezzin could never be the same.
(Krishna Jha is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and biographer of SA Dange, one of the founding fathers of the Indian communist movement. Dhirendra K Jha is a political journalist with Open magazine in Delhi.)